I'm an avid reader of the blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (ACOUP), a blog about history, economics, material culture, and speculative fiction.
In a recent series of posts about the game Europa Universalis 4, he refers to the concept of interstate anarchy, a way of describing international relations as being about the need to acquire power to guarantee survival. He then references this when describing the situation of a West African ruler having to respond to the introduction of (improved) firearms by European traders:
Even a good-hearted West African ruler (and like all rulers, many were not so good-hearted) was strategically trapped; refuse to trade enslaved people for guns and you would be defeated and traded by those who did.
This connected to another thing I've been thinking about for a long time: alternate models of how the arrival of advanced aliens might look like. In general, the expectation has been either conquest or enlightenment, sometimes a mixture of the two. These tropes have calcified in our understanding and it can be hard to break out from them. And of course, stories about alien colonisers are often really about colonial history. The point of War of the Worlds was that the world's greatest colonial power at the time was being outmatched and colonised by a foreign force.
What if aliens did to Europe what Europe did to the rest of the world?
It's not as simple as an armed invasion.
I'm concerned about the quality of my tap water, and I don't really trust store-bought water either, so I'm trying to make properly fresh water in my kitchen by combining hydrogen and oxygen in a blender. It starts out OK at first, but then the blender explodes.
Has anyone had any luck making fresh water in their kitchen blender? What brand of blender would you recommend?
Alarms blared as the Battle-Citadel WRATH OF KORGATH prepared to enter the Void Gate to the Krauthammer system. In the citadel’s barracks, thousands of mankind's finest warriors stood ready, photon lances charged, to bring the fury of mankind to the monstrous, tentacular Z’zgh’ghlkt. The words of the High Legate in the citadel’s Command Apex echoed through the War Halls of the mighty craft, imploring each warrior to hold the line against the alien horror that threatened to engulf them all.
Doctor Heidegger. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet us.
No problem at all. It's important that the public understand the important work we do here.
Yes. Can you give our listeners a brief introduction?
Of course. The Ontology Ward is a somewhat unique part of the hospital. While elsewhere, purely physical ailments are treated, here we concern ourselves with problems of meaning and categorization.
The HMS Sojourner was an experimental airship from some years back. A huge Suspendium crystal had been found in a deep mine, and the kingdom's best scientists had examined it and found it to be flawless. A crystal of this size, powered up, could lift a ship to unprecedented heights.
The Sojourner was built around the crystal, carefully cradling it in a giant frame of shock absorbers. Huge boilers and generators provided the power to energise the crystal. A team of experienced engineers tended to the engines. The captain was a steadfast veteran.
It occurred to me that Dumbledore's Army was basically a paramilitary student organization. In reality, those tend to be bad news. So here's a cynical alternate history, told through newspaper headlines. Any similarity to real-life events is blatant and intentional.
"It's not you, it's me!" she whispered, urgently. I dropped to my knees and put my ear to her chest. She was right. The buzzing was coming from her heart, not mine, and it was stronger than I had thought. Not much time left.
The letters had been chiselled into the doorway. A relatively recent addition to the 18th-century academic architecture we found ourselves in. Grenville patted his pockets for the keys. The corridor was dimly lit by a forty-watt bulb shoddily installed in a wall sconce meant for a candle. At least it wasn't a flickering torch. That would have been too much.
So tell me a little bit about what your company does.
We're a seventh-level re-insurance company. Our main business is providing financial stability for sixth-level insurers, ones based in local galactic clusters.
So you're the guys who get called when a whole galaxy explodes, like what happened to M411?
Northern Remember to bring a jacket. Take care when entering and exiting the sleds as the station may be icy. Do not feed the reindeer.
Hammersmith and City Operated by dwarves. Mind your head.
Central The last thing you remember is going through the ticket barrier. You're now at your intended destination. Travel times vary widely, but you only rarely arrive before you depart.
Metropolitan Our ongoing modernisation programme aims to eliminate the old entrails-based signalling systems by 2025. Until then, please report any omens to the nearest member of staff.
A quick story derived from a writing prompt.
I opened the door carefully, watching out for the cat. Given half a chance, he'd escape into the stairwell, get confused, and try to break into the neighbours' flat thinking it was ours.
No cat, though, just a clink of silverware on crockery.
Ant colonies consist of a number of highly specialized creatures: Sterile females function as workers and warriors. Males only live for a short time and basically amount to a girl-seeking vector for genetic material. And each nest usually has only one fertile female, the queen, who never leaves her chamber and churns out eggs. (There's an exception to this, but I don't want to get into the whole gamergate thing right now.)
So in a classic science fiction approach, let's take a real creature and turn things up to eleven.
I continue to be fond of alternate takes on Sherlock Holmes, so here's another one:
Holmes is actually a network of experts hiding behind a common pseudonym. That's why he's considered a "master of disguise" - it's all different people. "Watson" is simply the codename used for cases where two Holmes operatives need to turn up to the same place. Think Global Frequency mixed with Sherlock Holmes.
A common question in science fiction is what humans are like relative to other sentient life-forms. Because we only know life from one planet, Earth, we have insufficient reference points to know how we might compare.
Perhaps the most popular trope that answers this is "humans are average" - we're medium-sized, medium-smart, medium-aggressive, medium-everything. This sometimes gets extended into "humans are flexible", a kind of earthling boosterism wherein we come out on top exactly because we're more well-balanced than the aliens.
It's the future. Humanity flies amongst the stars, part of a galactic society of thousands of sentient species. We're not special in any way. We're not important. We're not very well-known, and we sort of like it that way. Because if we're known for anything, it's for the damnable galactic plague that is cats.
A quick story fragment based on this writing prompt. Trying out things with different character personalities and stuff.
I was told by my dentist that if I didn't start brushing my teeth properly, I would have none left by the time I was thirty. I'm pretty sure he was exaggerating wildly, putting on a show of concerned authority in his bright, clean office that nevertheless smelled of Dentist. But I let him get to me on purpose. Sometimes, fear is a much better motivator than reason.
I have given in to the lure of fanfic. Here's a take on what might happen eighty years after Bruce Wayne's death.
"It's simple. We kill the Botman."
Julia looked taken aback. She still wasn't used to Percival's rather... direct approach to problem-solving, but she had to admit he had a point.
"Well, it's not really killing, is it? More like shutting down." Play it cool, Julia.
"Decommissioning," Laura added.
Julia gave the floor a little sideways kick, sending her and the chair spinning. All the chairs in this place were upholstered with fancy leather and pointlessly high-backed. Sitting down was a squeaky and slightly mildewy embrace.
It's long been fashionable to reinterpret Sherlock Holmes, such as in the recent TV shows Sherlock and Elementary. Apart from changes in time, place, and mood, the exact nature of Holmes and Watson has seen various permutations - here amusingly referenced by Kate Beaton. So here's my cynical take on things: Holmes as a fig leaf for corruption.